Wordsmith Interviews

Interview: Randa Abdel Fattah

Randa Abdel-Fattah published her first book, Does my head look big in this? in 2005. I was immediately drawn to it because of the hijabi girl on the front cover, especially because I had insights into what it’s like to put the hijab on from my own Muslim female friends. The book didn’t disappoint, and today, Randa has published a number of YA and children’s books, as well as columns on racism, multiculturalism and Islam. She is currently doing her PhD (exploring everyday multiculturalism and racism in Australia) and released her first adult’s (or chick-lit) novel, No Sex in the City, last year. Randa took some time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about her writing career and how it crosses over into her interests. Thank you for joining us at Wordsmith Lane, Randa.

Tell us, in a nutshell, how you got your start as a wordsmith.

Writing a book called, Ronald, in year six. It was blatant plagiarism of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, except Ronald (unlike Matilda) was the anti-hero. I even traced Quentin Blake’s illustrations. My teacher loved it and invited me to read it aloud to my class.

Did you write your entire manuscript before shopping it to agents, or were you approached?

The first book was a long work in progress. I wrote the first draft when I was about fifteen and sent it to every publisher I could find. It was rejected. I rewrote the draft about 8 years later. I then sent it to a manuscript assessment service to ensure I would have a polished manuscript. I then approached YA agents and was very fortunate to be accepted by Sheila Drummond. I felt I would have better luck if I had an agent than if I were to send an unsolicited manuscript to the slush piles on publishers’ desks.

How has having an agent [Randa is represented by Sheila Drummond] enhanced your career?

I don’t think I could have done this without my agent. Putting aside the fact that having an agent enables you to protect your rights and negotiate from a position of knowledge and experiences, having an agent also means I can get on with what I love doing– writing– instead of the tedious business of contracts, accounting etc. Even though I’m a lawyer, I still can’t stand the ‘business’ side of being an author and contracts make me shudder!

Do you ever have days where you miss law, or are you living the dream?

I rarely miss practising as a lawyer. I still think like one though, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. My personality really is split between the analytical lawyer and the creative writer, although the writer in me dominates. The only thing I miss about law is the regular income!

I’d love to hear a little bit about your PhD project at Macquarie University. Do you think this will open up more avenues for your work as a writer?

I’m researching people’s attitudes and feelings about Islam, Muslims and multiculturalism in Australia. My fieldwork has already inspired an idea for a YA novel and I am planning to write it once the thesis is complete. I couldn’t handle the stress of doing both simultaneously. Also, I think I’ll be able to write more honestly once I’ve completed my research.

Does my head look big in this? was such a great read for me. I am about to release a book on growing up in Sydney from the perspective of a Lebanese girl and I am curious – was it something close to your heart writing about a teenage girl’s experience of putting on the hijab for the first time, especially knowing that you had thousands of girls who would relate to your character and not wanting to let them down? How did you balance that with being true to the fictional character as she is in your head?

I can honestly and sincerely say that I did not think about my ‘Muslim’ audience when I wrote the book. It really did start as a cathartic process as a teenager– something I was writing for myself, to help me ‘come of age’ as a Muslim hijabi. When I approached it again as an adult, I came to the writing process with more maturity and experience and took pleasure in the craft of creating characters that I felt represented experiences and personalities I wanted to explore, rather than me trying to tick off a checklist. I think I had an advantage because I had lived through Amal’s experiences to a degree, and so I felt I could write authentically. That conviction probably saved me from feel pressured to write as a ‘representative’.

One of my favourite parts was the blurb, which including an excerpt where Amal goes to confession and tells the priest, ‘I’m Muslim’. Although I am not Muslim I could relate to her sentiments in more ways than one. It’s hard being a teen, let alone a teen from a minority group who had copped flak in the press because of the actions of a few. Do you feel that your books, the YA ones in particular, have opened up the readers’ eye a little more and shown them that Muslims are normal people with normal struggles, and Muslim kids are ordinary kids?

I hope so. That is what my readers tell me and I feel humbled to have been able to inspire that kind of insight in them. Some of my books (the ones that deal with identity and prejudice) do fit into that grander narrative of ‘humanising the other’ and trying to invite readers to see the world from a different lens. However, if that was the sole objective of my books, and if that kind of activism drove me to write, my books would have fallen flat because nobody wants to be preached to and I don’t want to be a preacher. I’m also terrified of the kind of ego that kind of self-thinking about my work could develop in me. I don’t want to see myself as this virtuous educator, so to speak. If I ever sound that way, knock me out please! I hope I have more respect for my readers than that. I’m not trying to devalue the issues my books raise– issues I am so passionate about that I quit law to throw myself into them even more! I guess it’s more that I don’t want to be a writer of issues, I want to be a story-teller. I think there’s a difference. I love that being a writer means you grow and develop with every book. I’ve learnt that when I sit down to write, the main pleasure I derive is not from how I might change my readers, or how I might contribute to generating a more subversive story, but the actual craft of writing: the games I can play with words; the way I construct a story, laying foundations, layering here and there, the interior and exterior design; watching the characters I create evolve into independent people in their own right, sometimes doing things on the page that leave me speechless, wondering how I arrived at a scene. Honestly, that’s my fix.

You’re often called upon in the press to be a voice for your Australian Muslim community. How does that feel? Was that something you expected from the outset of your writing career? How has the community reacted to your work beyond the writing?

I love that you say ‘a voice’, not ‘the voice’ or ‘community representative’. That’s a refreshing insight into the fact that no one voice can speak on behalf of over three-hundred thousand people and that says it all for me. I try to express my views and thoughts and do so as an individual, rather than somebody attached to any organisation. The vast majority of feedback from Australian Muslims is wonderfully supportive and constructive. I had the ‘activist/writer’ persona hat on before I started writing novels so the roles have been compatible.

I also quite enjoyed No Sex in the City. I thought Esma’s observations about dating were so funny, and was in stitches imagining some of the scenarios with the suitors that didn’t speak English as well as Esma. What was the transition like in writing for adults as opposed to teens? Or was it seamless? Did you like it more? Have more free-reign with what you could say maybe? 

I loved writing No Sex in the City because I relished the chance to do something subversive (which might sound odd in a sentence with the words ‘no sex’ in it!). What I mean is that I liked the chance to inscribe my own interpretation of chick-lit onto that genre but also to create strong, female characters that don’t define their identity solely in terms of meeting ‘the One’.  If I had to choose between writing for adults and YA, I’d pick YA and children’s fiction any day. I love writing about the lives of younger characters, especially those on the cusp of adolescence.

What were some of the struggles – and the joys – that you experienced with your first foray into publishing? 

Struggles: I was heavily pregnant on my first book tour. So most of the photos and footage remind me of swollen feet and a puffy face! (I never saw myself as one of those glowing expectant mothers).

Joys: Until today, the feel of a book in my hands or on a bookshelf with my name on it sends tingles down my spine. Not for one second do I take this blessing for granted. I feel unbelievably blessed to have realised my dream.

What’s the biggest lesson you have learnt as an author? 

Ignore hindsight. Don’t judge your writing, because each book is a reflection of who you were at a particular moment in your life.

What advice can you offer to those who are interested in a similar career path?

Persevere. Join writing organisations, enter competitions, ask people who aren’t related to you to read your work for feedback.

Ten in the Hot Seat:

Describe yourself in one word: Nostalgic

Biggest accomplishment to date: 12 books in 8 years. (Accomplishment or serious caffeine addiction? You be the judge.)

You wish you wrote: High Fidelity (but I couldn’t. Not even one line of that work of genius.)

Can’t leave home without: My phone.

One thing you are currently writing: Fourth instalment in my new children’s series, The Book of You.

First thing you wrote: A story based on my life. I was five. There was a cliffhanger about a boy called Billy coming to the house on the last page. Until today, the story is unresolved and I have no idea what I was talking about.

Addicted to reading: It goes in waves. Currently, Peter Temple.

Top spot on your goals list: Exercise more.

If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: The Hobbit. Because I love food, home comforts, friends and family, and often underestimate myself.

The best thing about being a wordsmith: Finding the rhythm and beat in a sentence.

Interview: Hannah Richell

Tell us, in a nutshell, how you got your start as a wordsmith.

I’ve always loved writing and have kept a diary from a very young age. I think that urge to capture experiences and feelings on the page came instinctively to me. Yet it was only when I stepped away from work for a year (to have my first baby) that I felt a desire welling up in me to try writing a novel. I had the initial idea and began to follow it. The result was Secrets of the Tides.

Did you write your entire manuscript before shopping it to agents, or were you approached?

I wrote several drafts in their entirety and only sent it out to agents when I felt it was as good as I could get it, under my own steam.

How has having an agent enhanced your publishing experience? 

My agent is amazing. She had a great vision for my first novel, which translated into publishing deals around the world. Writing is a very solitary process so it’s great to know there is someone in my corner, supporting me and championing my work. I thank my lucky stars every day that she took me on.

Both Secrets of the Tides and The Shadow Year are set in the past. Do you prefer writing about times gone by? Why? 

I like to play around with time and structure in order to create a sense of tension and mystery; it’s a little like building a jigsaw puzzle, fitting the pieces together in the right order until the full picture is revealed to the reader. I’m interested in how the past can shape us, and impact not just our present, but even alter our future. I think the structural devices I use can help to illustrate and enhance this theme.

What is your typical book-writing process like? Do you write in order? Do you have a routine? How much research or pre-planning do you do? 

After I’ve had the initial idea I let it breathe for a while. I think about where the plot, who the characters are, where it’s all heading. When I have a starting point and a rough ending to work towards, I begin to write. I try not to be too prescriptive in my plotting because I find some of the best ideas and twists grow out of the writing. If I get stuck I sometimes jump ahead to write a section that feels more exciting to me. I do some research before I get started, but the rest of it happens as I go along. After the first draft, I leave it for a little while, then come back to it fresh and address issues such as characterisation, pacing and plot. My sister and my husband are my first readers – I trust them to be honest, in a kind and supportive way.

What were some of the struggles – and the joys – that you experienced with your first foray into publishing?

The biggest and most unexpected joy has been being published in the first place. It still amazes me that a story that began in secret with a few clumsy sentences at the kitchen table now sits in bookshops and belongs to any reader who wants to pick it up.

The biggest struggles for me are the self doubt that naturally comes with putting your work out there for scrutiny … and making that shift from the private solitude of writing, to the public performance of promoting my books. It requires two different skill sets. Both are fun, but I’m happiest when I’m at my desk, lost in a story.

What’s the biggest lesson you have learnt as an author?

So far, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to trust my gut and write the story that excites me most. It was a painful lesson to learn because it involved setting aside 100,000 words of another draft to focus on a new idea. Thankfully, it paid off when the new idea became The Shadow Year.

What’s the next thing you’re working on? 

I’m excited to be at the start of a new story, but also terrified to be at that cliff edge again, contemplating a leap out into an idea. Writing a novel is such an act of blind faith.

What advice can you offer to those who are interested in a similar career path?

Read a lot. Write a lot. Delete a lot. Write the story you are itching to tell and write it for the love of writing – not for a market, or an agent, or a publisher, or a hot new trend … because those things are always shifting and moving faster than any writer can keep up with. You can worry about the pitch and the positioning and the agents and the market when you have a manuscript that you believe truly shines.

Ten in the Hot Seat:
Describe yourself in one word: dreamer
Biggest accomplishment to date: my kids
You wish you wrote: more letters, to my friends and family
Can’t leave home without: keys and phone
One thing you are currently writing: a short story for a UK magazine
First thing you wrote: secrets in my diary
Addicted to reading: yes
Top spot on your goals list: a third novel
If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: someone supportive on the sidelines – the traumatic stuff always happens to the main characters
The best thing about being a wordsmith: daydreaming for a living.


Interview: Jessica Shirvington

1) In a nutshell, how did you get into writing novels?

Writing stemmed from reading. I wasn’t a huge reader when I was young and it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I discovered a real passion for books, especially YA.
When I sold my company in the UK and moved back to Australia to have my second child it was the first time since I finished school that I wasn’t working crazy hours and I found myself reading copious amounts of books. One day instead of opening a new book, I opened my laptop and started writing. That turned out to be my first novel. I don’t really know when I realised what I was doing, but I look back on the day often and am very grateful that it happened.

2) You have mentioned that you do a fair amount of research – mythology and folklore and such. How long is the average process of writing one book, from planning to finishing the first draft?
Every book is different and it is often dictated by deadlines and what else is happening at the time in terms of other projects. At any one time I can be working on a draft manuscript, an Australia edit for one book and an international edit for another book, so time has to be juggled accordingly. But if I have little else to focus on, I can write a first draft comfortably in three months.

3) Do you have a routine that you stick to, in order to get the most out of that time?
I want to say no, but the truth is I suppose I do. I break up the work of a manuscript into stages. First concept and plot points, then a handwritten chapter breakdown, character profiles etc. When the writing really begins I start with word one page one and don’t stop until I hit the last word on the last page. I don’t go back and fix mistakes, even though I become acutely aware as I write on just how many there are. I just jot down a quick note as a reminder and wait until I’m on my second run through to address it. I find it is the best way to keep me focused. Once I have a first draft it takes at least another three before anyone sees it.

4) What kind of novelist are you, ie, do you write your books in order? Do you plan the whole storyline and know what’s going to happen before you start writing, or do you write and figure it out as you go?
A little bit of both. I need to know the overall goal. So for my series, for example, I have always known what I wanted the end of each book to be, but not necessarily how it would get to that point. Relationships, scene and twists often happen on the page as I am writing. But without a structure, I find it too easy to go off on a tangent.

5) How did you go when you were shopping around your first novel? Did you always have an agent? How did you go about getting an agent?
I was extremely lucky to be given an introduction to my now-agent, Selwa Anthony. I sent her my first three chapters and she asked me to send her the rest (I still remember being so giddy with excitement!). Two weeks later she took me on as a client and a few weeks after that I had my first three book deal with Hachette Australia. My first novel was released onto shelves about 5 months later in October 2010. Since then I have released four novels in the series and Between the Lives, with HarperCollins, which is my first stand-alone novel.

6) Your Violet Eden books are being developed for a series on the CW TV Network in the US. Can you take us through what is involved when that happens? (Ie, everything from how you felt, to whether you negotiated if they can change things etc)
Well, obviously it is very exciting to be talking with production companies and networks when they become interested in your stories. For me, when Embrace was first released in the US it garnered some attention in the major print newspapers around the US and that caught the eye of a few of the big production houses. I have a film & tv agent in LA and when we were approach by The CW Network I really didn’t need to give it a lot of thought. With shows like Gossip Girl, Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Green Arrow, I knew it was the perfect home for my books. When CBS studios and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment joined forces with the CW, it was absolutely amazing.
In terms of getting the deal done etc, it was all fairly straight forward, similar to a book sale, but I guess there were just a whole lot more people involved so it takes times to get everything finalised.
Now, I just sit back and wait to see if it gets off the ground. They’ve been working on the pilot script and if that gets a run it would be very cool! But I also know there are many stages for plug-pulling moments and so I try not to worry too much. It is out of my hands and only time will tell.
As for creative control, my agents explained it pretty perfectly to me when we agreed to the initial sale, they said – if you want to hold onto the story and keep control, then don’t sell it. But if you are okay trusting them to work with it, go for it.

7) Has having an agent enhanced that particular experience? How/Why?
Having a film agent in the US has been vital. They know all the lingo and all the people within the studios and production companies. I would be lost without them!

8) Was any one of your books particularly harder to write than the others?
They are all challenging in different ways. Sometimes the plot comes easy but the relationships stick at the wrong moments etc and vice versa. Sometimes I find a plot point gets bogged down in the wrong way. I try not to let it bother me. There is always a solution, you just have to keep looking for it.

9) What were some of the difficulties you encountered when trying to establish yourself as a writer? Did you rely on any tools, mentors, groups or writers centres/courses for help?

I think the biggest problem most writers encounter is self-doubt. It is scary putting your work out there to be judged, especially the first time, not knowing if it is really any good or not. So that was something I had to come to terms with. In the end the answer was simple because my passion for wanting to do this so much overrode any insecurities and I knew I just had to go for it.

10) What tips would you offer to readers who may want to follow a similar path?
It is hard to give tips. Everyone is different and writing is a personal thing. So I suppose my best tip would be to trust yourself. If you are working on a story, make sure it is something you believe in and are passionate about. If it is, it will come through in your writing. The other thing I’ve leaned is to write as big as you can, you can always scale back. Don’t be afraid to go for it and that even in the most fantastical of scenes the emotions can be entirely real and heartfelt.

10 in the hot seat:
Describe yourself in one word: Obsessive
Biggest accomplishment to date: My children
You wish you wrote: Harry Potter
Can’t leave home without: My phone
One thing you are currently writing: The final book in my series
First thing you wrote: Embrace, book one in my series
Addicted to reading: Everything
Top spot on your goals list: Finish my current manuscript
If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: Er…things often don’t go well for my characters. But if I had to pick one, I would probably choose Steph from the Embrace Series
The best thing about being a wordsmith: Being in charge

Interview: Amal Awad

Amal Awad headshot 13

As I prepare to launch my own novel on a Middle-Eastern girl’s experience growing up in Australia, I am reading my way through other stories of a similar nature. I’d come across the work of Amal Awad thanks to her columns on Daily Life, and one recent one in particular really resonated with me. Her migrant upbringing mirrored my own, and reflected some of the themes explored in my novel. It compelled me to buy her novel, Courting Samira, an insightful read on dating/marriage in the Islamic faith and the way young Australians are navigating it. Awad’s book was actually self-published after things fell through with a publisher, so I thought she’d be the perfect candidate to talk about what happens AFTER you get the publishing deal, and how an unhappy working relationship can only be bad for you if you let it.

1) Tell us about how you came to be a wordsmith. 
I love that word, ‘wordsmith’. I think I’ve always had a connection to the written word. I loved reading as a child, getting lost in other worlds, no matter how familiar or unfamiliar they were. But, like many good things in life, realising I really enjoyed writing my own stories was a late discovery. My novel was a test for myself – I wanted to see if I had a book in me. So, in short, I have no idea!

2) Did you always plan to write books? Or did that come as a by-product of journalism? 
I used to joke about it. A friend I’ve known since kindergarten recently reminded me that I announced to her in high school that I would one day be writing books. I don’t even remember that, so perhaps intuitively I felt it. But by high school graduation, I wasn’t fully committed to the path of writing. I ended up pursuing an arts/law degree. I took the long way round.

3) What style of writing do you like to work at the most? 
I used to love humorous writing the most, but I’ve really come to enjoy writing more personal columns on self-development, relationships and life more generally. It’s challenging but also an interesting journey to take, because you have no idea who will join you on that journey, but it will connect to certain people. It’s not my job to think about who and why, I’m just a messenger.

4) What are some of your current projects, and who are you writing for at the moment? 
I’m currently undertaking part-time study at AFTRS in screenwriting, which is a very challenging dive into creativity. I love it though. I work full-time in financial services journalism (I’m quite specialised in trade media), but in my freelance work I write for The Vine, Daily Life and SMH, and I have a regular column with Aquila Style (think Muslim women’s Cosmo). I also do the odd story for a specialty publication. I also do the odd story for a specialty publication. I’m also (trying) to write the next novel, which is a sequel to Courting Samira. But it’s not so much about Samira (I won’t say anymore than that!)

5) Tell us about your first novel, Courting Samira. What inspired it?
Courting Samira came about in a moment of self-reflection, but the nagging you- know-you-have-something-to-do kind. Basically, I felt my life was at a standstill, and while I’d tended to think I hadn’t experienced anything, I realised that there were riches of experience I could draw from, not only in my life, but those around me. More specifically, what did I have to say about love, trying to find it, then realising there’s more to life than awkward courtship rituals? Being a fan of chick lit (guilty pleasure), I decided to see what “Muslim chick lit” would look like. I jokingly call it Bridget Jones, without the sex and alcohol. Which essentially makes it a very universal journey of self-discovery. And, of course, love – but on different levels, not just the romantic kind we often feel so determined to define our lives by.

6) How long did it take you to write it? 
It was an on-and-off process of a few years. I think I bashed out a really bad first draft in about eight months. But the final book doesn’t have a huge resemblance to it. But that’s how you find your story, I suppose.

7) You’re writing about a fairly personal matter – reflecting on dating and marriage in your Islamic faith. Did you face criticism, or were you wary of any criticism, from members of your community because of the almost delicate nature of your work? [Amal balances the different ways that young Islamic Australians navigate the religious customs associated with relationships with a mix of characters that are devout or liberal, although all practising in their faith] In my first few drafts, I was very mindful of what I said and how it would be received. This was restrictive – as you know, writing has to be truthful in order for the reader to find a connection in some way. We write empathetically, which means we need to draw on universal ideas and truths, not preach one belief or dynamic. However, I eventually pulled back and just allowed the story to flow, making it a much more organic – and interesting and revealing – process. Would I have written it differently now? I think so. But I told the truth for what felt right about these characters at the time. It stopped being my story very quickly, and I had to listen to the characters.

8) Your book was self-published in both an e-book and print format. What was the experience of self-publishing like? Did you hire an editor? Was it costly? 
I didn’t hire an editor, it was too costly for me. I would’ve liked the guidance, but I did thorough work revising it, and earlier on in the process, I had the manuscript assessed. That was an immensely useful process. On the proofreading front, being a sub-editor in a past life, I was able to produce very clean copy. But I recruited a few people to take a look, so it was like having an editorial team on board!

Self-publishing isn’t that costly, depending on how you approach it. It’s more fiddly than complicated. I used Createspace for the print edition (which gets you into the main bookstores online, including The Book Depository), and for the e-book, which was released first, I used Amazon and Smashwords (the latter of which allows distribution to several networks, including iBooks).

I’ve written about the process here and here, which should give a good idea of what it involves. The important thing to note is that the costs really come down to creating a professionally done book – if you want good cover art, you need a designer; if you want it to be free of errors and plot holes, you need clever readers and, yes, an editor. The e-book is very cheap to produce, as is the print, because you’re not required to buy anything in bulk. Print is on demand – customers order it online and Amazon (or whichever publisher you use) produce a copy and send it direct. The expense is in the marketing, proofing, editing, cover work, formatting and ISBNs.

9) What tips would you offer to readers who may be considering self-publishing their novels or books? 
Invest in it as though you are a publisher. Be willing to devote a substantial amount of time into it. Be prepared to withstand what can be a painful and trying process, but know that it is possible to get media and publicity with tenacity and the right approach. Don’t be embarrassed that it’s self-published – believe in your work. And don’t cut corners.

10) You had a publishing deal originally. What was it like signing a publisher, only to have the relationship go awry? Any lessons we can learn from your experience that you would be willing to share? 
As you can imagine, it was disappointing, particularly given how drawn out and challenging the process of can be. However, I’m philosophical about that sort of thing. I couldn’t understand it, but I felt there was a reason, even if it wasn’t clear at the time. I had some signs that told me there was some work to do. I gave up for a while, but when the time was right, I was ready to put Samira out into the world.

Incidentally, she was originally ‘Amira’. When I decided to self-publish a couple of years later, it needed a form of renewal. My mother had been suggesting for a while that I change the name of the heroine. Eventually I took it on board and we came up with the most minor of changes. But it felt like a better fit.

11) What were some of the difficulties you encountered when trying to establish yourself as a writer? Did you rely on any tools, mentors, groups or writers centres/courses for help?
I don’t think it’s ever truly easy, unless you’re well-established, which takes years. For me, being able to take advice and constructive criticism has been extremely important. I was lucky to have some initial guidance from an editor at a major publishing house early on in the process.

Be patient and willing to learn. We’re always learning, and I think that’s something I realised early on in the process. There are so many components to a book or any type of creative work. It’s not enough to have a good story or a great marketing team. Things need to connect. So whatever it takes to infuse the project with positive energy, do it – that could be a writers’ group. I did a Robert McKee ‘Story’ course. While I don’t take his word as gospel, he got me thinking about my work differently, and it made an impact on how I told stories.

I think the key is not to rely on anything or anyone, but to identify where something or someone can be helpful and guide you to creating a stronger story.

12) What’s next on your wordsmith goals list?
More exploration in non-fiction writing, and some deep diving on the fiction front.

10 in the hot seat:

Describe yourself in one word: Thoughtful
Biggest accomplishment to date: Launching my book – but it’s probably a tie with being on a panel at All About Women at Sydney Opera House
You wish you wrote: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I just loved this book.
Can’t leave home without: The handbag essentials
One thing you are currently writing: A piece on drama therapy in Lebanese prisons – amazing stuff
First thing you wrote: The first published piece was a Heckler for SMH on being unemployed and having difficulty finding work. My first unpublished work involved a hen named Rosie, I believe. I even illustrated it.
Addicted to reading: Letters of Note – a website that publishes letters from famous/ notable people
Top spot on your goals list: I’m honestly not sure. I kind of just bundle up a whole bunch of goals to create one big super goal!
If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables)
The best thing about being a wordsmith: Being able to find an outlet to empty the stuff out

Interview: Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult is very busy writing best-selling books at the moment (like this one that I really liked), so I couldn’t get her for a full-length interview. Instead, she’s answered some questions about how she writes and the journeys that her books take. Enjoy!

Picoult_Jodi1) You studied creative writing but worked in very different fields as a copywriter, editor and teacher before writing your first novel. What was your first publishing experience like as a novelist? Did you get an agent or publishing deal immediately, or was it a struggle initially?
It was very much a struggle. I had over 100 rejections from agents while I was trying to “make it” as a writer. However, once I found her, (and she is STILL my agent 25 years later) she sold my first book in 3 months. Also, the first book I wrote – the one I used to get the agent – is not the one that sold. That book remains unpublished, for good reason. It’s not up to par.

2) You have said that it takes you nine months to write a novel. Can you take us through what that nine months is like and what it involves?
The idea is something that keeps me up at night. If it keeps me up for several nights, it’s a good idea for a book. Characters pop into my head and begin to take the story away, telling me about themselves in their own voices. Then I stop and figure out what I need to know for research. I find people who will let me shadow them or work with them so that I can know the most about my characters and write from their voices with a point of view of authority. I do several months of research, and I don’t let myself start to write until all those facts and bits of info – which are swirling around above me – form a brilliant first line. Then I start to write — and when I do, it is a 7:30-4 PM job every weekday. I wake up and edit my way through what I’ve done yesterday and then keep going.

3) What kind of novelist are you, ie, do you write your books in order? Do you plan the whole storyline and know what’s going to happen before you start writing, or do you write and figure it out as you go?
I know the beginning and the end so that I can lay a paper trail for the twist, so you can go back later and say, “Oh my God, how did I miss that!?” But I don’t know the in between. The characters very much take me there, and often they surprise me with things that happen that I was never expecting.

4) What was involved in the process when some your books became movies? Did you have a lot of input into scripts, storylines, casts, or did you sign your rights away?
I had no input. In fact I was lied to by the director, who promised me during My Sister’s Keeper that he would keep the ending of the story, which was truly important to me. He spent a year writing the script and asking for my help and indeed it looked like the book. Then I found out from a fan who worked at a casting agency the end was changed. I called Nick, and he wouldn’t take my call. I flew to the set and he threw me off the set. I went to the office of the head of New Line Cinema and told them they would lose money — and sure enough, they did.

5) Your daughter, Samantha Van Leer, recently co-wrote a book with you. Do you think your career has inspired her?
I think she has a much healthier understanding of how hard a job this is. There are no guarantees, and it’s really difficult to grind away for hours a day, creating. Plus, she was baptised by fire – she wound up doing a three month international tour, which is fun but grueling. Sammy has a remarkable imagination and is a great writer, but she is wary of doing it for a living because now she knows how hard it is — that it’s not just all glamor and fame! It won’t surprise me if she DOES become a writer but then again, she’ll come to it with a strong awareness of what’s needed.

Interview: Kylie Ladd

kylie-bio-pic2After signing the book deal with my publisher at Harper Collins, I pitched my ideas for my second book. I was a little ambitious (didn’t know it at the time) and thought it might be a challenge (biggest understatement if there ever was one, from a new writer at least) to write from the perspective of multiple characters. When I realised the enormity of what I put myself into, my fellow author-to-be Gabrielle Tozer suggested I read Last Summer, by Australian author Kylie Ladd. Although I have not gained headway on my own project, Ladd’s book was a great read and a much-needed peek into a new style for me, and now, I am really excited to see what she’ll offer with her new novel, Into My Arms.

1) Tell us about how you came to be a wordsmith.

I’ve never really thought of myself as a wordsmith- I have days where the muse is playing hookey that I have trouble even thinking of myself as a writer! But I guess I have always wanted to write, and have been writing stories since I learned my alphabet. My 10 year old daughter- poor thing- is the same: she will sit down and write stories for pleasure, just to see what happens. Her older brother can’t believe anyone would voluntarily want to do that, but if it’s in you you can’t fight it.

2) You have a PhD in neuropsychology. How does that influence/affect your writing? 

It pays the bills so I can write! Sadly, I’m not joking- though my training in psychology has also definitely influenced the way I observe and think about others. My work as a psychologist continually exposes me to a huge cross- section of people, which I think is really useful for a writer, but most of all I think that it has helped me understand that “story” is a fluid concept, depending wholly on perspective. In the clinic where I work, part of my role is to take a history from both the client and a member of his or her family. Though I have been doing so for many years, the process still has the power to surprise, given how differently the same events can be perceived and experienced by different people. It seems there is always some fresh way for us to love or hate, to accommodate or alienate each other; there are at least two sides to every story. Listening to my patients and their families gave me the idea for the narrative structure of After The Fall, where four main characters take turns at telling their side of a shared story.

3) You’ve dabbled in journalism/literary journalism, fiction and non-fiction. What have you liked the most and why? 

I’ve enjoyed all the writing I’ve done, and am grateful to have tried so many forms- but the older I get, the more I realise that long-form fiction is my natural home. I have to confess that short stories scare me, and I’ve never written one- they’re too intimidating! A novel gives me space to spread out, to really think through what I’m trying to say, to get to know my characters so intimately I feel I would recognise them at Coles, to develop themes and ideas. I have written almost 6 novels now (3 published, 2 never to be, my next one three-quarters finished) and I think that writing a novel is one of the most difficult- but most rewarding- jobs there can possibly be, just immersing yourself in a world you’ve created; the act of keeping sight of shore when you spend a year or more at sea. Every day I sit down to write the task ahead terrifies me, but (almost) every day I get up at the end of it feeling exhausted but victorious and deeply, deeply satisfied. That’s not to say that I think my actual writing is so hot- but the act of putting one word after another, again and again for days on end, until a story emerges, a world, a novel- that’s something.

4) Do you find the wordsmith experience between genres different? 

Yes. Fiction comes more easily to me and interests me the most. The literary non-fiction I’ve written was enjoyable because of the challenge of mingling facts and memoir, but straight journalism (to me) is hard work. You can’t make stuff up!

5) If you were to explain your novels in an elevator pitch, what would you say? 

My three novels- After The Fall, Last Summer, and Into My Arms– are quite different from each other, though all, I guess, centre around relationships, respectively lovers, friends and family. I will never write a thriller, though I respect those who do. The way people treat each other is far more interesting to me than blowing up aircraft carriers.

6) How long, on average, does it take you to write a book? Do you have a style that you work with? Ie, are you a planner, or do you just write?

Around two years, though I only write a few days a week so that time span is a little misleading. Against that, I’m not sure I could write five days a week anyway- I find it too exhausting. I’m an inveterate planner to the point of obsession. I know pretty much what’s going to happen from the moment I start a book, and I like it like that… it gives me the confidence that I might actually finish it.

7) Is writing your full-time job at the moment? If not, how do you balance your writing with work and motherhood? Do you have a routine?

I balance writing with motherhood (which is much easier now my two children are at school), my psychology work (2 days/week in a two public hospital clinics plus private practice as well- which can include court appearances) and teaching creative writing. For those who so often ask, this is why I don’t blog. It’s all a bit of a stretch at times, but I love the variety of my week, and it makes me absolutely determined- and yearning- to write on the days I finally get to sit down at my desk.

8) Has having an agent enhanced your experience as an author? How? 

Definitely! I’ve had an agent for four of my five books so far (I have co-authored or edited two non-fiction books as well as my novels) and couldn’t be without her. Pippa, my agent (from Curtis Brown in Sydney) makes everything smooth- she knows how to sell me, she works out all the business stuff, she is both confidant and cheer leader, and she’s also my first- and most trusted- reader.

9) What tips would you offer to readers who may want to follow a similar path? 

Don’t give up. I’ve wanted to write novels for as long as I can remember, but it took me until I was 40 to get my first one published. I have friends who had the first book they created snapped up and published, but they’re rare and a bit frightening. The more usual trajectory for a beginning writer is years of hard slog- which is great practice, because that’s what the rest of your career will be too ;).

10) What were some of the difficulties you encountered when trying to establish yourself as a writer? Did you rely on any tools, mentors, groups or writers centres/courses for help?

Um, no. I should have, I tell my students to, I would certainly advise any readers to- but I am contrary and a bit anal and just kept writing novels without showing anyone until I finally sold one. Possibly that’s why it took me so long! I still don’t show anyone, including my family, what I’m writing until it’s published, because then they can’t say “That’s rubbish and it will never be published”. I do envy those writers who have someone they can show their work in progress to and share ideas with, but that person has never turned up for me. Or maybe I haven’t let them, because I’m a bit of a control freak and I don’t want to know what anyone else thinks while I’m still working things out myself…

11) What’s next on your wordsmith goals list?

To finish my next novel. I’ve got 70,000 words, I know what happens and the ending is so close I can taste it- but I sort of don’t want to either. This is my absolute favourite part of writing a novel, when I finally feel pretty much in control of my material and I‘m bringing all the ideas and thoughts I’ve tossed out there along the way back to the boat, because land is finally in sight… I’m just going to savour this bit, because after that the hell of showing people and having to think about my next book will begin!

10 in the hot seat:
Describe yourself in one word: Driven. (You want to be a writer? You have to be.)
Biggest accomplishment to date: Last Summer was Highly Commended in the FAW 2011 Christina Stead award for fiction. That felt pretty good. Oh yeah, and my kids.
You wish you wrote: The Great Gatsby. Doesn’t everyone?
Can’t leave home without: Something to read.
One thing you are currently writing: Coles lists and my fourth novel.
First thing you wrote: “Peppy and Pip go to boarding school”, a novella about two dogs who go, you guessed it, to boarding school. I was across that whole genre way before JK Rowling.
Addicted to reading: Yes.
Top spot on your goals list: To keep writing and to keep being published.
If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: Katharine Clifton in The English Patient. Except for, you know, the plane crash.
The best thing about being a wordsmith: Someone telling you they loved your book, plus entire days when I don’t have to brush my hair.



Interview: Paullina Simons

A few weeks ago, when international best-selling author Paullina Simons returned to Australia for her Children of Liberty tour, I sat down with her to talk about her writing, her characters and her stories past and present. Many thanks to all who sent in questions for me to ask her – below are your responses. Enjoy!

It’s a massive pleasure to meet you, Children of Liberty is the first book I was sent to review, I have bought every single other one myself and I have enjoyed them all. I want to begin with how you got started as an author? 

I had an idea for Tully, but originally Tully was going to be a short story. The thing with me is that I always wanted to be a writer so the short story for me was a way in, because I was told, you can’t just write a novel, you have to write a short story. So I tried to do that. At the time I was working as a financial journalist in England, and while I was doing that I wrote the short story. It was when I was writing that short story that I felt for Tully, I just felt her as a character with a very full life. So I said one day I am going to write a book about her. It just so happened that clearly grace and God were looking out for me because I was fired from my job. I came back to America and the company I was working for went bankrupt so they let everybody go. So everybody else at work got another job, but not me, Miss Responsible! Also, I had a little child at the time, and I thought, I could write a book. So at 28 years old, I wrote Tully.

Did you find an agent straight away? What was the process that you went through like?

I did. I took it one guy who seriously considered it but passed. Then we sent it to another woman who read only the first part of it and wrote a letter to Kevin (who later on became my husband) but he was an Editor at the time, and he didn’t let me read that letter until many years later, but that letter said that they were going to pass on the book because really it wasn’t written well and [I] need to take some writing lessons before approaching [them] again. But he didn’t show me that letter, he just told me they passed it because he did not want to deflate me. An then the preferred agent picked it up, and said ‘Oh my God, don’t show it to anyone else, I am loving it’ and while she was reading it she showed to a friend of hers, who was a publisher looking for his launch book title…and mine was the book that they got.

Well I want to talk a little bit about what I think is your stand-out work, which is The Bronze Horseman trilogy. I’m sure you know that because readers on your website love it. I read The Bronze Horseman just after I finished my Master’s Degree. I took six weeks off to travel around Europe and it was while I was on the beautiful Greek island of Santorini that I did not want to get out of my hotel room because I just wanted to know what was happening. And for a while there my [now] husband was very jealous of Alexander because I became obsessed with him. In fact I said, if we get married I want to name my son Alexander. And he was like ‘Who is this guy? Why are you so obsessed with him?’ But as I spoke to other readers I realised they all felt the same way…

They’re all very surprised. When people come to see me, they all think that they are the only ones, but when they turn around, they see all these other people clutching their books to their bosoms and they realise there is something in them that gets it the way I wrote it and the way I felt it, and there are a lot of people that feel that. And they’re all like ‘We thought we were your biggest fans but look at this crowd…’

And I check the forums on your website to stay updated with the movie. And everyone is so excited. Especially when they were talking about Henry Cavill from The Tudors playing the role.

Oh yeah, he’s awesome, but he is now Superman so it’s not going to be possible.

So what I wanted to talk about is how that book is so rich in history and plot. Did it involve a lot of research on your part? I know you’re originally from Leningrad?

Yes originally from Leningrad but I was not there during the war [me: of course] but my family were. And they’d tell different stories but many of their stories kind of faded with time and really what they could tell me were little bits. They could tell me for example about the hospital burning, or they could tell me about some other detail about how hard it was or how dark it was or how they had no kerosene anymore and stuff like that. But they just couldn’t tell me about the day to day anymore because you know they don’t remember anything. So I would have to look things up and read up a lot of stuff. But really, the research was just a way of procrastinating. I didn’t know enough to write the book and I knew it. But the more I looked into it, the more I researched, it the more paralysed I became, so really it was not helping me, it was really hindering me because I was stopping myself from writing. I went to Russia to do research, I came back from Russia and when I came back instead of writing, I wrote a travel log and a memoir of my trip to Russia called Six Days in Leningrad. So I did everything I could, including writing another book, to stop myself from writing The Bronze Horseman. But once I started writing The Bronze Horseman I did not stop for six years until I wrote 2000 pages, plus another book that I think we’d never publish because it was alternate reality, alternate universe. A sequel that you’d never want to read. I wrote that first and I put that away and wrote the way you’ve read it now. So once it came, it flowed like a river. I couldn’t stop for many years but I was very afraid of writing it.

Was it hard writing it, because of your Russian heritage, having a lot of investment in it? Did you have to take a step back and take yourself out because you were writing about your mother country?

No, it was because I was writing about Russia it probably was as emotional as it was. It was so painful and so real and also because once I realised what I was writing…once I realised the enormity of their love but also because of their love in that time where they had so much going against them…the enormity of that story. Humanity as personified by them, and also the inhumanity as personified by the country in which they lived, I realised that I had an incredibly big thing on my hands. I had to get it right. So I did feel that more plainly because it was about Russia. And I do remember there was a period where I first published it, that I almost couldn’t talk about it. I remember people were talking to me about it like it was just another book and that made me a little bit sad that some attitudes seemed so shallow to me, because I had written a book about Russia, and people were like ‘So what?’ when I couldn’t even get the words out about what that book meant to me and what it meant to me to write about Tania and Alexander. And I just remember thinking ‘Oh my God. What am I going to do? How am I going to talk about this book? It’s crazy, I am not on the same page as anyone’. It was only when the book was published because then the readers got exactly what it was, in a way that my editors, my publishers and my agent did not get it. And so for me, I remember that really well.

One thing that surprised me in the trilogy is the religious overtones. I was surprised by Alexander’s references to God, him teaching Tatiana to pray, telling her that they had to get married in a Church. I found that so interesting because when I read Children Of Liberty, I was surprised by Alexander’s parents. Like how did Gina and Harry ever…

…Ever get together, because Gina is so Catholic and Harry put on his religion. So she put away her Catholicism for him, but we know that in the next book that Alexander is baptised Catholic. It’s a big thing. For Harry, religion was just something that people did, it was just a thing. She asks him, “Do you ever read the Gospel?” and he was like “No, why have you?” and she responds with “Oh, Harry…” What a big difference? How did the old world work with the new? In Russia religion was completely wiped, except in the villages. And you know that in Lazarevo, where they pray over Tania. The people believe it, they don’t put it on, they live it. If you remember from The Summer Garden, the people in the villages did not forget their faith. That’s how they were. It was in the villages that people went to baptise their kids – in the big cities. I know because when we came to America my dad was not baptised, and my mother was only baptised because she’d been born in the village. So I wanted to have Alexander who really reminds her of her true Russian self in Christ. A deep religion that you do not put away, like the Sicilians and their Catholicism. You were born with it and you die with it. And they know it like how they write their name, they will never begin a meal without saying grace, they pray over the sick. So Gina does it with Harry, and then Alexander with Tatiana…

Another thing I noticed when reading Children of Liberty is that it left so many…

Questions? All the answers will be revealed.

I hope so! My question was going to be is there going to be something else to follow?

Next October! It’s already written. It will be called Bellagrand. Because when I wrote it, the story was so big, and I had promised my publisher a book like this [gestures with her hands to indicate a smallish book, the size of Children of Liberty] and I gave them a book like this [big] and they said “What have you done?” and I said “I’m so sorry” and so we all decided…once they had read it and saw how rich a story it was. I mean, the book now has a natural end, leaving you with ‘What is now going to happen?” It comes to a very good point where there are a lot of questions unanswered, which they all will be. And the story stops at a natural point. And the next one will have tragedy and heartbreak and love and life…

I’m so glad, because I remember in The Summer Garden that Anthony, Alexander and Tatiana visit Aunty Esther and when I read Children of Liberty I saw that Harry & Gina were cut off from their family, so I figured there had to be another book…

Well yes, as you know Esther is a sad but wonderful character. She has a huge presence in the next book, and of course there’s Ben.

Ben and his bananas? Well you know I loved that. I loved that it was not just Gina and Harry in there.

That Panama thing is a very important contrast with the path that Ben chooses. They’re both sort of in the same boat. They’re both young, have the world at their feet, lots of opportunity; they’ve both gone to Harvard. Once chose economics and history, one chose engineering, but then what do they do? And Ben’s path is instrumental in the next book, because then you see the diversion in the degree that they decided to approach their lives.

I look forward to it. Was it always your plan to write a prequel?

Never. Not even remotely close to my plan. It was as far away from a plan as you could possibly say. I was in the middle of writing another book, a great depression love story between completely different characters in a different universe, which is probably what led me to Harry and Gina, but it was in the middle of that story that they just came to me. I blinked and I saw them, whole and young, and I said, Oh my God. And I just sat down and I knew. I saw Gina, I saw her intimately. I felt it, and I had to call my publishers because they were waiting for this other book. I said ‘Hear me out’ and they were very excited because they saw the potential…the love, the transformative history.

I think the appeal from the reader’s perspective is that you read about them briefly in The Bronze Horseman and you think, you poor people, what led you to go there?

That’s right and now you’re waiting for the answer. In the beginning of the book they could not be further away, so now it’s about how they get there. They couldn’t be further away from having children, but they get there.

I love that the characters were so spirited. Gina has so much spirit, she was a Sicilian woman, an ethnic woman, driven by drama.

People like you, me and Gina, if our hands were tied behind our backs, we’d be rendered mute. She is so passionate, but she did not know what she wanted to be. This is about them finding their place. We think that Harry already knows his place, but he doesn’t. She wants to be the woman that Harry will love, this is her goal she set for herself. Whereas he knows, he doesn’t want to be his father’s son, that’s what he knows.

Can you share with us, with my readers, what it’s like working on a script [for The Bronze Horseman] now?

I did finish the script and I am lucky because when we make the movie it will be wholly my script and it will be from my plan and that was really a whole debilitative process because people wait so much for that story, when the parts that will work in the movie won’t be the same parts that work in the book. There’s the expansiveness, and because there’s so much richness, you have to combine themes which is very hard. The summer garden scene where they fall in love has to be very short, like any other scene. There are so many things you have to make compromises on in order to move to the point, and it is three hours and 12 minutes long, and they’re telling me it’s too long. They want to cut it down to two hours and 30 minutes, but there’s nowhere to cut anymore, because once you cut you lose the story.

Fans of the book won’t care anyway…

One producer who optioned it took it to a director who read my script and wanted to cut out the Leningrad scene saying people don’t want to see people fighting and dying – but what are you going to have without it? Them meeting, falling in love and getting married? The whole thing is death begat life, out of the ashes, like a phoenix, everything is new, a beginning. That’s the history of mankind.

Well on your forums, your facebook page, the website, you’re inundated with questions on the movie. What’s the latest on that?

We are very close to being in development. We’re negotiating a contract right now, with a view to get a studio and the plan is now getting financing and getting a package together. The whole thing is about raising money – it costs so much money to make a film, so we’re hoping to do all this in 2013.

How are you finding Australia? I know you have been here before and you’ve even made mention of Broken Hill in Road to Paradise. What do you love about this country?

What is there not to love about this country? The Australian outback is a dramatic landscape. Poems should be written of love stories and tragedies. It’s rich in plot and narrative, with horrible things happening to horrible people and horrible things happening to great people. It’s the nature of it, it’s scary. You have more poisonous, venomous, horrifying things than anywhere else on earth. That’s frightening. I get shivers down my back thinking about it.

Even the kangaroo, which is cute. But tough. You need to be careful, apparently it can kill you so fast…

I wanted to see a baby kangaroo so my publicist took me. She stayed by the fence and I went up to feed them. They were big and nasty and they come up to you and it grabbed the bag right out of my hand.

I’m going to move on to a different book altogether. Let’s talk Spencer O’Malley. He’s the only one in two of your books, other than Tania and Alexander, even though the books are completely unrelated. Why?

I felt like I didn’t give him enough of a story and I was thinking about where he was, as I usually think about where my characters are. And I thought he had to go back home to New York. Lily’s story was completely separate from him, but he was there, and she was going through something, and I knew somebody had to come and help her find Amy. I saw that Spencer was just working there – and it was a combination of every once a while thinking what Spencer was doing and then creating Lily wholly as a new thing so that we were able to have them together at the right time and place.

You’re gifted with an ability to set historically-rich scenes, believable characters and plot-lines that leave your readers hooked. How long on average do you spend on a book? Do you plan the whole book before you write?  

Well I have to know where I am going otherwise I meander and I write and go off on tangents. I have to know where I am headed, which means I usually go on a journey with them. It’s not about what happens next, I try to keep that from me and from the reader so that we’re just travelling along together. Sometimes I do need to know a tiny bit, but planning takes the joy out of that revelation that I am telling you about. I usually know things – they can’t be together, they have to separated, I know they have to get to the next stage. I know that Alexander has to be born in 1919, but I don’t know how. How and why they end up going back to Boston [in Children of Liberty]. I have to knew a few things, but I really want to be like you and discover.

What has been the response to Children Of Liberty?

It’s all very new. My fans are loving Gina but like you, the story is unfinished with them. But you would have been suffocated – it would have been too much to have it all.

What’s next on your writing/goals list?

I have to return to my great depression love story. I have a beautiful tag line for it, and Isabel and Finn – I think they’re going to be their names – are going to be as loved as other characters that people have enjoyed in my books. And then of course there is the next Children Of Liberty. And then another story, a funnel from The Bronze Horseman but having nothing to do with it, but more love, more war. And maybe Lily and Spencer solving the perfect crime together.

Ten in the Hot-Seat:

Describe yourself in one word: Consumed
Biggest accomplishment to date: Motherhood or Books
You wish you wrote: East of Eden
Can’t leave home without: My i-phone
You’re currently writing: A great depression love story
First thing you wrote: A 78 page novel called The Legend of Miromani
Addicted to reading: Biographies
Top spot on your goals list: Playing the Piano
If you could be any character in a novel, you’d be: Alexander

Paullina’s answers to some of your feedback:

Hurry up with the Screen play: Ok
Please make sure the movie is in Russian: Not if we want to make any money
Please don’t agree to any actors: I will never!
Please write a sequel to Tully: Isn’t that interesting. I am wondering where Tully’s child Jenny is, so maybe something along those lines. Tully is a seminal book for me, people feel so strongly about a girl suffering and struggling

Thank you so much, Paullina. Looking forward to reading more of your books.